Dion's greatest band

By Stephen Islip with the co-operation of Lee Foy and Doug Schenker

Without a doubt Dion's long term fans are in agreement, his greatest band was the late 70's Streetheart Band (or The Main Street Gang as they were sometimes billed) - but until now their story has never been told.

To tell this tale I have called on the support of Lee Foy a member of that legendary band and the Dion Timeline for facts and dates.

Where to start

Always a difficult one, but to my mind the place to start is back with Dion's last major hit - "Abraham Martin and John" in 1968. This single was a one off hit on the Laurie label, which had supplied Dion with most of his teen hits in the 60's. That was before he'd slumped into drugs and doing what he wanted to do on the musical front - an unforgivable sin in the 60's - almost as bad in the new century. The trouble was that Laurie only signed him up for a one album deal, so when success came along, he was in the driving seat to go and get a good multi-album deal which gave him the maximum artistic freedom he could obtain.

With the Warner Bros. deal he made 3 folk albums which were not big sellers (compared to say James Taylor or Carole King) but must have performed well enough because he continued to get most of what he wanted released. There is some suggestion there may have been some arm twisting with Sanctuary to include some live hits to boost sales . But the follow up folk album in early 1973, Suite for Late Summer, despite the guiding hand of Warner Bros. staff producer Russ Titleman, got middling to poor reviews and was probably only purchased by his core fan base.

The fact that Warner Bros. did not terminate the contract suggests they still saw potential in the artist to get to a wider market. However continuation would mean less control over the arrangements and material. It was however the end of the singer-songwriter / folk boom so whether Dion jumped or was pushed into the arrangement is still a matter of speculation.

The first album out of this new arrangement was Phil Spector's Born to be with you, where Dion (other than co-writing a few songs) handed complete control over to Spector. Dion so disliked the outcome that he virtually disowned the sessions. (The " Born" and "Reunion" albums were dead ends of his main WB career and are ignored for the rest of this article).

Streetheart sessions

Following on fairly soon after (early 1976?) was the sessions which ultimately became The Streeheart album. This was do or die moment for Warners and Dion. Someone - presumably the record company decided to bring in big name producers to work with Dion. Steve Barri and Michael Omartian being producers with a track record were selected. Barri having earlier worked with P.F.Sloan. The resulting album was radically different from the preceding folk albums.

Streetheart Album

The album (released on 25 June 1976) had its moments:

"The way you do things you do" - a great original interpretation of this old Motown classic.

"Runaway man" /"Queen of 59" - Great AOR tracks. Star backing from Phil Everly on Queen.

"If I can just get through the night" - While the sugar sweet backing can initially be a bit off putting, it is brilliant track reflecting on addictions - as powerful as "Your Own Back Yard".

"Streetheart" - The title track - a laid back tale of obsessions - said to be about his wife - but did we believe him? Anyway what a brilliant late nite track.

The trouble was the rest of the tracks were essentially indistinguishable soul-lite, which just dragged down the whole project. In contrast to his 4 previous folk albums, the streetheart material just wasn't up to it - no matter how sweet the arrangements.

Dion got writing credits on 5 of the 12 tracks (we have included the single only track virgin eyes).

Warner Bros. were clearly happy and ordered the big promo budget - posters which can still be bought on the internet and the star Interview in Rolling Stone Magazine (29 July 1976). Warner Bros. should have heeded Greil Marcus's comments in the June 1976 Rolling Stone before they invested too much in the project:

"Streetheart suffers from the same lack of focus seen on its jacket. As a singer-songwriter album it falls short of the craftsmanship of Sedakas Back and misses the compelling individuality of Waren Zevon's recent debut. Everything's very moderate on streetheart; the music vaguely Philly-soul influenced might be called a solo album sound: competence substituted for personality. Dion has written some good songs ( "Queen of 59" ,"Streetheart" ) but also some utterly conventional help me make it night number; he come up with some fine performance (the temptations "The way you do the things you do" and "Lover boy supreme" ) but the overall tone is too even too smooth. There's just not much here that survives after a dozen playings. Streetheart is attractive, its contemporary but its dull."

We all know you only need 4 or 5 decent tracks to sell an album - how many times have you bought on the basis of 2 tracks heard on the radio, then realise you've been had. So the potential for a reasonable seller was there.

Dion's manager (Zach Glickman) claimed that the album was "Dion's Tapestry" but did record buyers agree?

The Streetheart Band

The album released in June 1976 had been made by studio musicians (given the title of The Streetheart Players in the credits), so now Dion needed to recruit a band, to promote the album around the country. If the sophisticated arrangements of the album were to be matched on the road then Dion needed versatile, experienced professional players. Three chord thrash merchants need not apply.

I'm going to let the insider Lee Foy tell his tale at this point:

"You were correct in saying that we were Dion's best band as far as musicianship goes. The band consisted of myself on tenor sax, alto sax flute, harmonica and backup vocals. Rusty Steele on guitar and vocals. Mark (ed: often known as Mac)Tiernan on keyboards and vocals. Buzz London on drums and percussion. Denny Weston on bass. It was a shame that we didn't go on to better things. These guys were some of the most talented and gifted musicians I've ever worked with. All of us were from Baltimore and had played in bands around town and a few of us worked together in the same band. Mark wasa friend of Dion's manager Zack Glickman. Zack was from Baltimore but had been living in Los Angeles for some time. Mark got a call from Zack asking him to come to New York to discuss a proposition. When Mark returned he proceeded to contact the rest of us to see what we were up to. Well to make along story short, we all said yes and started rehearsing when Dion arrived in Baltimore. This was the middle of 1976 and I believe that the Streetheart album had already been released. After a few months, we were ready for our first concert. "

There was however an offer for them to support Van Morrison - a sure sign that the industry recognised the buzz the group were making even at that early stage.

The Boss gives some tips

Lee continues:

"Our opening show took place in Los Angeles at the Roxy Theatre (Ed 30 Sept 76). The show was well received. But because we were basically a new group it wasn't that polished. However, it wasn't terrible either. In fact Bruce Springsteen was in the audience and came backstage to offer some constructive criticism which we accepted and put to use. ".

The band whose repertoire consisted of most songs from the Streetheart Album plus a few of Dion's old hits, were out on the road bonding. However things back on the sales front were going nowhere - The Album never made the album charts and plays on FM radio petered out.

I'd asked Lee for details of some songs they were playing at that time and he replied:

. "Yes we did do "The way you do the things you do" and " If I could just get through the night". But that was at the beginning of our first tour. We later dropped them because they didn't seem to garner a lot of response."

Somewhere out there in middle America it stopped being the big name star with an able backing group and became the single musical unit flowing with ideas. Most likely this was the first time Dion worked with a self-contained band on the road and in the studio and started having a good time.

My guess is that while Dion started as the big star out front, but as the album sunk without trace, his ego dented, he became more a member of the band and started to write in the back of the bus between gigs. Sometime in late 1976 or early 1977 Warner Bros. dropped the Dion contract.

In early 1977 the last Single from the Streetheart sessions was issued - the upbeat "Young Virgin Eyes (I'm all wrapped up)" which true to form sunk without trace and is fairly difficult to find nowadays. There appear to be no recordings (official or otherwise) of the band as they dropped the poorly received material for the new songs which were starting to give them a buzz.

One of the main motivating factors for this material was the buzz bought about by Richard Price's book " the Wanderers" set in the early 60's and centering on a gang that take Dion as their alter-ego. Price was of course the originator of the term Streetheart. This encouraged Dion and the group to start thinking about their own upbringing.

The Return recording sessions

After the demise of the Warner Bros. contract a new one was signed with a small New York Label Lifesong owned by Terry Cashman and Tommy West who previously worked with Dion on his January 1974 single "New York City Song".

Lee says the album was : "recorded at Bay Shore studios (Ed: between Sept. and Oct. 1977) in coconut grove which is in the Miami city limits. Great studio and real nice people. We also had a great engineer, Bruce Tergeson. The record company had rented us this huge house on Collins Ave in Miami. Dion didn't live far from the house so he would go home after rehearsals and we would continue writing songs, hooks, licks, and melody lines. It was a musicians paradise! Nothing to do but play music and create all day. Once you get a roll going, the material would flow like a river. It was awesome!"

The production team was of course Cashman and West who'd had their own recording career and had one of their biggest successes in 1976 with the gold top 10 single by Henry Gross "Shannon". They could be relied on to work with the band rather than impose an external style.

Return of the Wanderer Album

The completed album "Return of the Wanderer" was an affectionate look at adolescence and what comes after. The tone of the album is set by the opening track Tom Waits "Lookin for the heart of Saturday Nite" and keeps in the same vein with "Mid Town American Main street Gang" - where those gang members from Prices Wanderers moved on, as adulthood moved in. "I used to be a Brooklyn Dodger" with its beautiful melody is a look at childhood and lost obsession which then glides into the instrumental "Streetheart Theme" which enables to Band to really show off their abilities.

In some ways the next 3 songs are a return to Dion's folk persona, "You've awakened something in me", "Pattern of my life" and "Power of love within". The same can also be said about "Guitar Queen" his homage to Bonnie Raitt his fellow traveller on the coffee house circuit in the 70's.

The album closes with 2 covers:

Dylans "Spanish Harlem Incident" - what astonished me was Dion finding a melody where none existed in the original.

John Sebastians "Do you believe in magic" - but as with any great performer they can take a famous song and make it their own.

So the Return Sessions were complete and the Band had returned with a mature album - soon to be defined as AOR and now the marketing had to begin.

What If?

This is where the irony sets in, because Dion and the band (no doubt set up with WB promo funds) had returned the album of sophistication and power that Warner Bros. had been looking for; but now he only had the small Lifesong to promote it.

Lifesong put their limited resources into it and produced 3 promo videos' ( "Brooklyn Dodger", "Heart of Saturday Nite" and with "Mid Town American Main street Gang"). Might history have been different if the album had had the Warner Bros. promotional power behind it?

The album was released in early 1978 and the long American promotional tour began. The album received several favourable reviews such as Greil Marcus's in Rolling Stone:

"Dion's new album opens with a house rockin' version of Tom Waits "Lookin' for the heart of Saturday night" and rings the bell 12 times: he really hits home. Fittingly this record implies some artists are more than just another step on the endless comeback trail of yesterdays hero.... But Return of the Wanderer is a return to form, not simply a return from obscurity."

These are Dion's comments about the same time:

""My past is a part of me. I know the last album, Return Of The wanderer, was a conscious attempt to bridge the past and the present and bring it together for the people who I stayed with me over the years through the many changes of music and styles. I know it's a problem because people tend to compartmentalise you. I'm not saying I have it made but I don't look at that past thing. It works for me, as you can see, and it works against me. "

"I've been around for a while and I never had my own band. It was very frustrating. I had vocal groups but I never had a band. Now I have both-a vocal band. That's why life is so new 'to me. I've gotten a second wind with the band. I feel good about it. It's hard work but it comes easy. I just love rock and roll. It's not something you hand charts out for., My music isn't like that. its home made music. It's great that the confidence I have stays with me because the music doesn't get all knocked to hell when you walk out and everything you want to happen isn't happening. This band is self-contained.

(Extract from the book "Where have They Gone? " - Author unknown - c1978)

Despite the Band touring constantly, the album sales never really took off - it never at that time got an international release.

Change of Name

I asked Lee about the change of name:

"When we were on tour promoting the Streetheart album we were the Streetheart Band. That all changed when the new album was conceived. The music changed to a more urban street sound and we changed with it. Actually it fitted us a lot better. All of us were inner city kids and we felt comfortable with the change. Hence the Main Street Gang. "

While the revised name seems to have been used on tour bills, both albums were credited to Streetheart Band!

The Radio Broadcast (WNEW- FM New York)

However in 11 September 1978 the Band played to the Bottom Line Club - Dion's heartland. There to record the event for prosperity and the evidence some of us needed, that this was an exceptional band and not one whose incompetence's were covered by recording studio techniques.

The 60-minute tape includes 13 tracks:

Having said it was 6 old hits, the band were not about to play them according to the records and gave unique performances - melody changes - lyric changes - riffs where none existed before - 5 of which are a must for any Dion fans. The exception is the is Teenager in Love used for audience participation and therefore not a true reflection of what the band could do.

Even the Return of the Wanderer Tracks differ quite substantially from the album cuts suggesting that each nights performance was unique. You also get the impression that the Band are saying they are Dion's musical equal and Dion responds to their challenge.

The playfulness of the Band is best demonstrated by their version of " Donna The Prima Donna ", where half way through they stray into Elton Johns " Crocodile Rock "to see if they can catch the old man out front off guard - they fail of course.

Perhaps the strangest song was the opening " Man in the Glass " - not a hit - not on the album - not planned for a performance that night - but it comes over well. This song had of course first appeared in December 1976 on the Cher TV show and was the flag post for Dion's next change in his career - gospel music. In fact the performance by the Band is far superior to the version that later appeared on Dion's first Gospel album ( Inside Job - Dayspring Day 4006 - 1981).

This tape even today remains a prized possession in many a Dion fans collection. As one of the station announcers remarks, the Band : "...blends 50s, 60s and 70s seamlessly."

From there it was back on the road - although timeline has no information on dates or times - so I can only guess that once again they didn't get the response they expected or rightfully deserved.

The end - Fire in the Night

In late 1979 the band returned to Bay Shore studios for the Fire in the Night sessions. Its predecessor although not a hit must have at least broken even, because you don't get a second attempt after failure on a small label?

The same producers - the same band (except bass was now in the hands of Jim Kestle)- the same star - but this time the combination did not produce a winner.

Was it the disappointment over lower than expected sales or because Dion was looking for new directions? Perhaps another contributing factor may have been because Lifesong lost their distribution deal with Columbia at about this time.

Of the 8 songs that made it to the album only 3 had a DiMucci credit - a clear sign he was losing interest? The arrangements are competent rather than exciting the subjects are not uplifting.

This is what Lee says about the sessions:

"As far as myself and the rest of the band, Fire in the Night was not complete. There was much more to do. The album was starting to get a little sleepy and mellow. But time constraints and record company budgets got in the way. "

Someone must have pulled the plug on a session. There were no killer tracks - nothing to put out as a single to launch the thing. Lee says that the band recorded a lot more material than was used, "There were quite a few more. I would say there were enough to do two more albums." So a different selection of material may have told a different story - but then that could apply to many albums - at the end of the day someone has to pick his view of the best.

Besides that Dion's desire to do gospel was getting stronger - " Man in the Glass " had been in his repertoire but had not found an album. Then on 14 December 1979 Dion was out jogging when the Lord spoke to him and he decided to embark on a gospel career.

Perhaps it's a shame he didn't take the Streetheart Band with him?

Dion's thoughts on his past

Given that it was Dion's best band by far, how did he just turn his back on them and walk away - such is the music business.

However he did make these comments on the failing project:

" Q Do you ever feel your involvement in secular music may have been sinful, that it might have taught kids immorality and led them away from God?

A I don't know. I feel like God will take care of my part. I gotta be honest with you here. I feel like a lot of the songs I recorded, especially an album that was supposed to come out now in March (ED presumably this is Fire in the Night)- I recorded it a year and a half ago - are a bunch of garbage."

Q What's wrong with them?

A They're negative. There's too much negativity out there. There's a funny word: disease. But I look at it like 'dis-ease' not at ease, you know? And I feel like there's a lot of disease out there and a lot of that music just adds to it. It's like throwin' up, it don't mean anything. It's people who are lost and glorifying themselves. And there's so much more to life, you know? I feel good giving the glory to God ... And that's real, it's beautiful."

(October 1980 Contemporary Christian Music)

In September 1989 the following question was raised with him:

Q The Return Of The Wanderer contained some of your best music on that album. How did it come about.

DD That was fun to do. I had this band, we put together, it was fun. I think that spirit that I was trying kind of flourished.

(Southampton Campus of Long Island University, New York Master Class with Dion 8/1/89).

That was a more generous comment than he gave on the Streetheart Band in his 1987 autobiography "The Wanderer", where he completely ignored their contribution to his catalogue. To be fair that might have been the publishers guillotine that chopped out the "unsuccessful" bits.

The return?

Was that the end of the musically brilliant but under achieving project? No, but you have to move to the UK to find the follow up.

Return of the Wanderer was not released in the UK the first time round and desperate fans had to import a copy to find out what they were missing.

Much of the rest of the tale is down to Ace Records - they began re-releasing Dion's early 60's Laurie albums and decided to try Return of the Wanderer. For years fans had been asking why there was no follow up to such a promising album as Return of the Wanderer. When Return sold well Ace followed it up with the first release anywhere in 1990 of Fire in the night.

The fact that " Fire " later turned up in remainder bins suggests it was not a best seller. However shortly after it was twinned with " Return" as a value for money twofer CD (CDCHD 936) and in that format it is still selling today. About that time some of the " Fire " tracks appeared as bonus cuts on an American version of " Return" - but the only way to hear the full album is still the Ace version.

Even today new Dion fans throughout the world are discovering through the Ace CD's and the WNEW- FM New York tape, what most of us missed at the time.

Lee tells me the band are still in touch with each other and would love the chance to blow with D again - wouldn't we all love to see them.

25/3/2000


further information

Despite the above we still have gaps in our history. If anybody has additional information - gigs - further live tapes - articles about the band -reviews - please contact me so I can include them in a follow up article.

I for one would love to hear how the Band tackled the Streetheart album songs - can anyone oblige?

Anyone who would like to agree or disagree with this article please log on the notice board and express your views - we'd love to hear from you.

steve


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